The Fish Are Loose (Again)

Piranha (1995)

Roger Corman is a penny-pinching producer. You might even throw the descriptor "notorious" in there, and you probably wouldn't be wrong. Famously (and infamously) the producer would crank out movies on the cheap via his various production houses. Most of these films weren't good (reaching a low-bar level making them the right kind of fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.), but occasionally the producer's team was able to crank out a low-budget cheapie that still worked. One such film was the 1978 Piranha which, despite it's hideously low budget, managed to become a decent little success, even gaining the praise of one Steven Spielberg.

A sequel (which is difficult to find in a watchable version now) was produced without Corman's help (and if that producer didn't want anything to do with it, you can imagine how bad the film must have been). But, still having the rights to the original, it was only a matter of time until the producer decided to revisit that film and find a way to squeeze some more money out of the idea. Thus, in 1995, a new Piranha film was produced... although calling it "new" is probably being far too kind.

Made for Showtime as a direct-to-cable exclusive, the 1995 Piranha is a very literal remake of the original (unlike the the very loose remake from 2010, Piranha 3D). It's practically a shot-for-shot remake, using the same script as the original (with only mild rewrites), and even some of the original effects shots as well. Produced on a budget so small the Wikipedia article for the movie doesn't even report it, the film is an absolutely shameless cash-grab. It's exactly what you expect from a Corman production, then.

The setup for the film is pretty much like with the 1978 original. Two teens wander up to an old military base in the region of Lost River Lake, and then disappear (spoiler: it was due to piranhas). A skiptracer, Maggie McNamara (Alexandra Paul), is hired by the uncle of one of the teens to track her down and bring her home. That uncle, J.R. Randolph (Monte Markham), also happens to run the resort in town and he really wants his niece back home in time for the official summer opening of the resort. So Maggie heads out, tracking down local guide (and drunk) Paul Grogan (William Katt) to help her figure out where the kids could be.

Tracing the kids to the old military base, the two decide to drain the pool at the base, expecting to find evidence of the kids. They do, but in the process they unleash the piranhas living in the pool, sending them out into the river. From that point forward its a race against time to reach town and warn the people along the river -- at a summer camp where Grogan's own daughter, Susie (Mila Kunis in her first major role), is staying, and then at the big resort -- that the piranhas are coming.

The 1978 film was a product of its time, for sure. A parody of Jaws, the film played around not only with the themes of that film, (like corporate greed) but also the idiocy of the military industrial complex as well. There was a strong anti-authority streak to that film, a theme that isn't reflected in the sequel. While the kids get eaten by piranhas at the military base, all of the military characters from the first film are removed from this movie. It's a minor change, as far as the cast is concerned, but it does have a big implication for the story.

The thing neither film really points out, but which is a major fact of the story, is that the release of the piranhas is entirely the fault of our lead characters. They decide to drain the pool despite the fact they're trespassers at the old military base. That doesn't seem so bad in the original film because the military quickly swoops in and tries to put a lid on the whole thing. That makes it the military's fault because they're actively covering it all up. By removing the military characters from the film there's now no real cover up and, thus, it places the blame squarely back on our "heroes".

I thought about this a fair bit as I was watching the film because the characters are going around, doing the same actions, spouting off the same lines (by and large), but the impact is very different. It comes across like they're cleaning up their own mess even as they fail, time and again, to acknowledge they're the ones at fault. Sure, they didn't breed the piranhas but they did unleash them, and without military characters to blame for the breeding of the fish and the cover up after, that leaves only a couple of characters to blame. It doesn't work nearly as well.

The film tries to compensate for this by having resort mogul J.R. Randolph dismiss their claims that piranhas are coming. He has the protagonists put in jail for a night to keep them out of the way (and, of course, they then escape), but he seems far less complicit in the events than the heroes or the military that used to be in the script. It's a poor substitution that hardly makes for a compelling villain. The script needed more reworking to compensate for the removal of the military characters, but I guess that would have required more money for further scripting. The budget couldn't support that.

Hell, the budget didn't even support new VFX shots. The monsters effects from the first film were reused regularly in this remake, even when its pretty obvious that the scenes don't line up. The most obvious one I saw was during a rafting sequence in the remake. Here, shots of the original version of the raft (which doesn't look anything like the raft used in the remake) are clearly seen, leading to a lot of visual continuity problems. I get the desire to be as cheap as possible, but this takes it to a degree that is well beyond laughable and straight into sad. It's glaringly bad in a way even a B-movie can't recover from.

I don't want to make it sound like this remake was all bad, mind you. The film does have tighter pacing and a slightly shorter run time (by six minutes). And the lead actors in the film are pretty good, with Paul and Katt doing what they can to sell this low budget, very silly, made-for-cable cheapie. The film, for all its shortcomings, does work at a basic level. It's not a great horror film but it is at least watchable. It just wasn't going to win any awards (except for maybe "cheapest film made for Showtime").

With that said, there's little reason to watch this version of the film over the original. That 1978 movie gets by on charm and pluck, wearing it's relative cheapness as a badge of honor as it parodies the monster in the water genre. This film, despite the work of the on screen actors, feels soulless and cheap. It's not as fun or as silly as the original, and it lacks the bigger, dumber ambitions of Piranha 3D. It's a mediocre, cheap film that feels it, and that's not going to keep most movie watchers interested for very long.